October 13, 2006

Cornellian Evolves Past Sportscasting

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“Good night, and good luck.”

For Joseph McCarthy, the words led to political destitution. For George Clooney, they meant an Oscar acceptance speech. For most, the vaguely apocalyptical send-off of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow is synonymous with broadcast journalism.

More than 10 years after Murrow’s See It Now program exposed Senator McCarthy’s corruption, Keith Olbermann ’79 graduated from our beloved Cornell. 1979 was also the year ESPN debuted.

Today, Olbermann is one of the most respected journalists in the country. His Countdown with Keith Olbermann routinely trumps industry vets like Paula Zahn at CNN for the cable news ratings crown. He channels the late Murrow in more ways than one — from his incisive political reporting to his use of Murrow’s storied phrase.

Olbermann chose a bizarre path to hardball political commentary — he started in sports. After talking sports for Cornell’s own WVBR radio, he wallowed in the California sports broadcasting scene before finally joining SportsCenter in 1992. Later, he was an anchor with Fox Sports.

Olbermann was a star at ESPN. He and co-anchor Dan Patrick pioneered the image of the celebrity sports journalist. The iconic banter, witty catch phrases and often sardonic reporting paved the way for a new generation of personality-driven sportscasters.

A few years ago, I ran into Olbermann while taking a tour of the Fox Sports studio in Los Angeles. Kevin Frazier, another former SportsCenter anchor and also with Fox at the time, hosted the tour.

The studio was a fan’s dream. Autographed memorabilia lined the walls like masterpieces in a museum. Tech guys played Madden on 60-inch screens and bet Lakers tickets on touchdowns. A room with hundreds of TVs displayed every sporting event imaginable occurring that day — from the San Jose Sharks’ locker room to the riding of the bulls.

Olbermann was near the anchor’s desk, cracking jokes and trying to explain why he could not answer some basic baseball trivia. In the over-hyped playland of sports broadcasting, Olbermann was a child with the biggest names and most expensive toys in sports at his disposal.

And he looked miserably out of place.

As St. Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.”

Olbermann has now become a man.

He has put away the highlights, boo-yas and T.O. charades in favor of compelling political commentary. As ESPN and its ilk continue to degenerate past mediocrity and into a cultural abyss, Olbermann has emerged as a heavy-hitting news reporter.

Olbermann was there on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York for 40 days of continuous reporting. He was in Iraq in 2003 when the United States launched its invasion. He has weathered intimidation and threats from the likes of Bill O’Reilly and the New York Post. He has indicted the current administration on all manner of hypocrisy.

The void left by Olbermann in sports was especially conspicuous this week when a plane piloted by Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle smashed into a Manhattan apartment building, killing Lidle and his flight instructor. As ESPN wheezed through the reactions of Larry Bowa and Derek Jeter, Olbermann was speaking to Lidle’s brother and witnesses to the crash.

Olbermann gave up every kid’s fantasy in order to truly serve his country. He traded the Little League World Series for Mark Foley, the Final Four for evangelical voters and the Oakland Raiders for the White House. On the five-year anniversary of Sept. 11 last month, Olbermann stood among the ruins of the World Trade Center and delivered a damning condemnation of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest.

Daniel Webster said a free press “instructs the public mind and animates the spirit of patriotism.” Olbermann has put away the New England Patriots to become a real American patriot.

Good night, and good luck.

Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Editor. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Friday this semester.